The fever over Netflix’s documentary series “Tiger King” spread nearly as quickly as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which series star John Finlay believes is in part responsible for the show’s widespread success. Finlay spoke to a group of 200 attendees logging on from all over the country to hear him describe his experiences—and what the hit documentary got wrong.
The interview was personal and revealing. Finlay spoke as casually with interviewer Alexa Rose M.A. ’21 as if he was speaking to a longtime friend and not a crowd of Brandeis students gathered for the April 25 event. Rose asked Finlay deeply personal questions, including his history with drugs, his sexuality, his time at The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park (G.W. Zoo) and his relationship with “Joe Exotic.” All of the questions dug into Finlay—at times a little too deeply—allowing viewers to get to know the real John, not a version cut and pasted together by a documentary crew.
So, who is the real John Finlay?
Finlay appears in the eight episode series—mostly shirtless and partially toothless—as one of Joe Exotic’s husbands with a drug habit. But the real Finlay is fascinating. He was never legally married to Joe Exotic, he said, and his drug habit was overplayed. In his own words, Finlay detailed his departure from G.W. Zoo, his abrupt rise to fame and his new life with two agents, two dogs and one fiancée, who occasionally chimed in on the Zoom call. Finlay described her as the person who knows “the good, the bad, the ugly [and] the completely insane” and remains his rock. He isn’t the “methed-out hillbilly” the show created, he’s a soft-spoken figure clearly still grappling with his time at G.W. Zoo and his newfound fame.
A consequence of his meteoric rise to fame was a deep curiosity into his sex life, and his relationship with Joe Exotic. The Texas-born Finlay was peppered with questions by interviewer and audience alike, with some seeming too close for comfort. Students in the chat occasionally commented on Finlay’s appearance or swore. At one point, Director of Student Activities Dennis Hicks reminded students in the Zoom chat that the interview was a campus event—organized by the Campus Activities Board (CAB)—and asked them to “please consider [if] the types of questions” they were posting “are respectful/appropriate.”
But Finlay took many questions in stride, explaining that his marriage to Joe Exotic was just for publicity.
“Actually we were never married, that was all for publicity to get the reality show,” Finlay said. “There was a proposal by Joe but nothing ever came of it…It wasn’t even legal then.” He continued, “He wore a ring, I wore a ring and we introduced each other as the other half and that was it.”
When Rose asked Finlay about his sexuality, he said that he considers himself straight despite his relationship with Joe, and that sexuality, to him, is fluid by nature.
“You can love a person,” Finlay said. “But it doesn’t mean you’re that way or another way. It’s just something that happens. There really shouldn’t be a label on it.”
The whole time he spoke, Finlay was candid and clear, although at times he seemed almost uncomfortable with the newfound attention. He seemed incredibly aware of the unusual circumstances of his fame, which grew while millions of people—including the students who logged on to hear him speak—were stuck at home, looking for some radically escapist television.
“If it wasn’t COVID-19 time, I don’t think we’d be sitting here doing this,” he said.
Rose turned the interview to Finlay’s experience with drugs, which he called one of the darkest roads he has ever been down. While the documentary implied that Finlay lost his teeth due to a methamphetamine addiction, he said that he had been losing his teeth since high school because of a genetic condition. (Finlay was wearing a pair of dentures during the interview, and said that he got them towards the end of 2019 while the documentary was being filmed. But those interview segments weren’t used in the final cut.)
Finlay was also shirtless in several solo interviews, saying that though he was filmed with and without a shirt, the producers chose to go with the shirtless interviews, identifying him as, “the sexy one” and “the sex symbol.” But the inaccuracies, according to Finlay, didn’t stop with him.
So how much of the series is true? “About half of it,” Finlay said. “They didn’t really portray everybody like they actually were.”
One of those characters is Carole Baskin—the CEO of Big Cat Rescue, an animal sanctuary in Florida. The documentary brought up the mysterious disappearance of her husband, Jack Donald Lewis, in the late ’90s, leading to an online storm of memes that alleged she had killed her husband.
But Finlay isn’t so sure.
“Carole may or may not have done it. It’s the way that they made you think that she did it all, but it’s an open investigation now,” Finlay said. “I can’t really go into details about it…” He continued, “They made it look like Carole did it. That is not what everybody should be thinking. They should be thinking ‘who did it?’ Not ‘Carole did it.’”
He also disagreed with how the documentary portrayed Doc Antle—the founder and director of The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species in South Carolina—saying Antle was a really great guy dedicated to the conservation of animals and without multiple wives as the show implies. A former worker at Antle’s institute appeared on the documentary, alleging that the workers were treated unfairly, that she was pressured into getting breast implants and that she worked incredibly long hours for little pay. Finlay said he didn’t know if the claims were true or not.
As for the Tiger King himself, however, Finlay said the documentary crew got it right. “Joe was actually Joe,” he said.
Moving forward, Finlay said he’s trying to move on from his time at G.W. Zoo and has no interest in speaking to Joe Exotic. He’s at home with his two dogs, Drago and Fury, and his fiancée. He might pursue TV commercials or a book—which might present Finlay with a new set of challenges, including how to move on when his identity has become so tied to the story of the Tiger King. For now, welding is Finlay’s full-time job and passion, he said, along with his dogs. Before closing, he offered the Brandeis students in the audience some advice.
“I went through a lot of things that change you. But it’s part of what makes you who you are and what you love about life,” he said. “Don’t let everything make you hurry up to live. Live for today and today only because a lot of people think tomorrow is guaranteed. It’s never guaranteed.”
“Losing a lot of relatives has changed a lot of us. It’s done a lot for making us who we are. I’ve lost a lot of people early in my life,” he said, shifting to speak about COVID-19. “I know where they’re at they’re always right here in my heart [and] my dad’s on my back.” Finlay pointed to a tattoo hidden under his shirt on his back.
“Tiger King” was a wild documentary series—giving you whiplash while keeping you glued to the screen—but hearing Finlay talk was just as captivating. One of the greatest parts of the interview was watching Finlay gush over his fiancée and hearing him describe how much he loves his life. Hearing Finlay speak about his time on “Tiger King” was a reminder that every person who starred on Netflix’s binge worthy docuseries has their own story to tell.
And I, for one, was very glad to hear it.